Jonathan Gili, on collecting and connecting

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

The wonderful new catalogue by Maggs counterculture is dedicated to (a fragment) of the vast collection amassed over four decades by the film-maker Jonathan Gili. An insight into Gili’s collecting instinct comes from this article by Anthony Gardner:

Lift the lids of the boxes, and you can scarcely believe your eyes. There are bottles of Star Wars bubble bath and packets of Beatles bubblegum; fridge magnets shaped like kettles and Danish pastries; hair clips
commemorating the Queen’s coronation; Camembert boxes and plastic lizards and packets of tortilla chips. It is as if all the flotsam and jetsam of post-war consumer society had been washed up on a concrete shore and painstakingly catalogued by an tireless, obsessive beachcomber.

Although the catalogue focuses on the recognised brilliance of London’s 1960s psychedelic poster artists like Martin Sharp and Haphash And The Coloured Coat, Gili would collect anything – indeed, Gardner notes he was particularly drawn to sardine tins and even self-published a book about them. The items Maggs has for sale includes such magpie oddities as shopping bags, wrapping paper (albeit designed by Paul McCartney) and old newspaper posters, such as this one regarding Joe Orton’s murder, taken from a newstand in London in 1967.

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In 1986, Gili wrote an article about his collection asking rhetorically: ‘Who could resist records shaped like Elton John’s hat or Barry Manilow’s nose? They have poor sound and often can’t be made to play at all… but as art objects they are sublime.’

Sadly, there are no records shaped like Barry Manilow’s nose in this catalogue as much of Gili’s collection went to a private collector sympathetic to the intentions and ambitions of Gili. But what makes somebody collect stuff like this? In his short, thoughtful, introduction to the catalogue, Carl Williams – who knows much about collectors – ponders that question. Collectors are often said to be creating a bulwark against their own death, but perhaps, speculates Williams, they also wish to act as a guardian for those things that would otherwise be ‘forgotten, scorned or destroyed’ as tastes and times change?  Today’s trash is tomorrow’s museum piece; yesterday’s lunatic is the future’s visionary. Gardner touches on this, with an anecdote in which Gili ‘rescues’ a particularly revolting object from a garage forecourt. It’s a revealing story. By the very nature of his collecting this worthless item, Gili has given it value. But he’s also, clearly and very simply, enjoyed the moment, relishing both the acquisition and the reaction it will get from his co-conspirator. Why collect? Why not!

Lucinda Lambton tells a story which epitomises Gili’s passion for acquisition. ‘We were driving through the outskirts of Guildford,’ she says, ‘and he suddenly shouted “Stop!” Then he jumped out of the car while it was still moving and ran across this huge, horrible garage forecourt. When he came back, he was triumphantly waving a gold-lamé-clad Michael
Jackson doll.

Collections also gain their own momentum, and I sometimes wonder how many collections have been made almost by accident – one minute you are idly picking up old books about London from secondhand shops and markets, the next thing you know you have 250 of the things and, inadvertently, the beginnings of a minor collection. And if you’ve started, you might as well finish. What else is there to do with your time?

More obviously, collectors hoard items that carry the echo of a cherished memory, certain pieces that remind them of a special moment in their past, or of a past they wished they had. Many of the items being sold by Maggs are focused around the London underground scene of the 1960s. I’m not sure quite what relationship Gili had with the counterculture, but he was clearly an interested observer at the very least – and he edited cult London film Bronco Bullfrog, with soundtrack by 1960s Gilbert & George support act, Audience.

Gili’s 1960s collection includes a number of items from that era that have always been regarded as important and beautiful, such as these stunning posters by Martin Sharp, one of my favourite psychedelic artists and, in my view, a rival to anything that came out of the more lauded Bay Area poster scene.

Cream by Martin Sharp

Cream by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Oz magazine

Oz magazine

UFO Club poster

UFO Club poster

Many of the objects are related specifically to the London scene – the shops, clubs, galleries and ‘fun palaces’ of 1960s London. Gili, then, had a close relationship with this city. One of his best-known films is the charming To The World’s End, about the No 31 bus journey from Islington to Chelsea. Interestingly, 1960s historian Jonathon Green recalls a map of this very bus route once published as a cover of IT newspaper, showing how it connected some of the key points of swinging London – ‘The hippie highway: all the way from Granny Takes a Trip to the Roundhouse’, as Green puts it.

A semi-thorough scouring of the ever-so-distracting IT archive has not turned up this delightful sounding map, so perhaps it was produced by one of the many other underground papers of the era. But it is not a massive leap to speculate that Gili, the great collector of underground London, noted this off-kilter way of observing and uniting the London villages, and later chose to make a film taking precisely that approach. Collections, like buses, are a way to make connections.

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